To Read: Peak

To Read: Peak

Photo credit: Eric Kilby on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

The Work at Hand

It’s the middle of April, and I’m behind on my Camp NaNo page count goal. Way behind. But I’ve still been busy reading, writing, brainstorming, and doing other things–like eating regular meals that I actually cooked (more often than in the past)–to fuel my progress. It’s the peak of the month’s mountain, but I have yet to reach my peak, and that’s okay. I’m making progress, and I get back on the horse and ride, every day.

Effort is a healthy portion of success, along with setting goals to focus those efforts, which I’ve done. And based on past experience with month-long writing marathons, I know I can catch up, but also that if I don’t, I’ll keep writing next month, and the month after that. The will and the ways are here. There’s forward motion. And I’m attending our helpful, weekly local write-ins and word sprints.

In those word sprints, I get words down on the page in large quantities. I’ve had practice at it, and I know how to turn on the juice. I have a sense of purpose, several projects I’m rotating through, and reliable writing tools at hand.

In other words, being behind on my established schedule toward my goal means very little in the grand scheme. With the help of Camp, I’ve set the goal in the first place and made more headway than I would have without it. I’m learning to keep reaching and keep thinking positively because of these events. With more opportunities like these, I’ll get better and better as I practice the habits.

Choosing Your Thoughts and Influences

While engaged in writing projects, I frequently come across sources that affirm the worth of pursuing them. This period has brought several.

When we aspire, when we strive to attain our ambitions, sometimes fear and doubt get in the way. Anyone with an ounce of humility has experienced some form of these triggers and, as a result, paused or even gave up on a goal. Writers and artists, perhaps more than many types of professionals, can experience the dreaded, more acute form of this fear and doubt, called “impostor syndrome.” I’m just not good enough. I’m not a real writer. No one will ever read my work. Etc. The Internal Critics Committee.

This condition is often based on the commonly held cultural belief that if you don’t start with great talent, your chances of success diminish. This idea, as it turns out, is far from true.

There are many ways to the top of a career. In all but the rarest of cases, no one keeps climbing or stays on top with only one factor on board every time, however convenient it might be to believe cynically in the ultimate power of one factor: genetics, age, race, sex, class, health, creed, nation, ethnicity, immigrant status, talent, education level, job title, confidence, charm, luck, physical beauty, notoriety, intelligence, inheritance, nepotism, ruthlessness, absolute shamelessness, and so on. If only I’d been smarter, richer, prettier, whiter, taller, male, etc., . . . then I would have succeeded.

Such views oversimplify life’s complexity, ignoring other areas of privilege that offset perceived deficiencies and drowning individuals in a sea of wasteful excuses and needless handicaps. Besides, it’s almost always quite unnecessary to be at the very top. (See my numerous posts on perfectionism.)

Equally important is the understanding that, in all but the rarest of cases, it also takes more than one factor or event to seal one’s fate in permanent failure. Life offers lots of chances, but we need to have faith and hope in the next day, in ourselves, and in each other, to be open to recognizing opportunities and potential, and to be resilient enough to keep trying. We have to be brave enough to trust and humble enough to seek help when needed. We must blend patience with persistence.

We also need to let go of false ambitions, of goals imposed from the outside, of the unrealistic definition of success and this limited, and limiting, sense of its requirements. We need a growth, instead of a fixed, mindset. Once we choose better ways of thinking and better thoughts, our lives are freer to climb out of the pit of stagnating cynicism.

Sooner or later, you either decide to stop being crippled by jealousy, frustration, misfortune, failure, or learned helplessness, and really focus on your own work, or you resign yourself to settling, whether admittedly or not. If we let it, adversity strengthens, failure teaches, and bouncing back rewards us. You get on with it, or you get nowhere.

So, really, I guess you could say there are some “requirements” for success, all otherwise known as “attitude” and “character.” And a little passion doesn’t hurt.

An Open Mind, a Willing Heart

But I want to focus on the unique challenge in this cloud of misconceptions about talent, specifically. To earnest takers of a chance, who also face doubt and fear, the challenge is to open our minds to possibilities and, then, to the recently researched data and the conclusions reputable researchers have drawn about that data. The action I encourage is this:

Believe in your growth potential, at any age, based on the scientific fact that no skill is innate, or remains honed, but is learnable and masterable and requires practice to keep.

In other words, talent matters so much less than our culture claims or believes it does. Sure, starting with a gift helps, but “deliberate practice” matters far more. Diligence, discipline, study, exercise, repetition. The foundation of mastery is made less out of giftedness and privilege and more out of steady, persistent, purpose-driven, and wisely shaped (smarter not harder) work.

As an English teacher, my high school classroom approach and motto, the center of a teaching philosophy created as part of earning my masters in education, came down to this: “With effort, intelligence grows.” The idea is that intelligence, the dexterity of the mind, though the brain starts in a certain place, gets better through active study and interaction with the sources and instruments of knowledge and skill.

A Book to Read

This is why I find the book I just stumbled upon so compelling to buy and read. As with all humans, I like its central message because it speaks to my own belief. What’s more, based on a peek inside, the book promises to back up that belief with science in a convincing, readable way. And if I can use that resource to help myself or others succeed, then that’s what I intend to do.

In my online travels, first I was reading Jane Friedman’s writing and publishing blog, which led me to Barbara Baig’s website, which led me to the book in question. An excerpt from Baig’s book, Spellbinding Sentences: An Author’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, was posted as Spellbinding Sentences: 3 Qualities of Masterful Word Choice at JaneFriedman.com.

Barbara Baig’s home page at WhereWritersLearn.com refers to the principles behind her work, including mastery and deliberate practice, and recommends the source of those influences:

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I read the introduction about Mozart and perfect pitch, liked the writing style, found it credible, insightful and fascinating, and made my decision. (Another stumbled-upon nugget!: Baig further samples and clarifies what Peak is about in another post on Jane Friedman’s site: If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? In a word, no.)

Today, I add Peak to my Amazon cart and my Goodreads to-read list.

Another great resource focuses both on what it takes to become an expert and on how to make the most and best possible impact in your career: 80000hours.org.

Of course, Jane Friedman has other gems along the same lines, such as 5 Things More Important Than Talent, which I recommend reading and absorbing if you’ve ever even slightly teetered on the edge of developing impostor syndrome.

My mind is alert and exploring these days, which is to say, although I’m feeling a bit scattered, it is not without purpose and some good outcomes. I believe I’m making important connections, realizations, and choices in the process. Not all rabbit holes lack rabbits, after all.

And Back to Work

Keep writing, reading, doing, succeeding.


 

One Writer, Many Ways

Modern human survival depends in large part on understanding and adapting to the difference between the best way and the only way. Could it even be true that, with absolutely anything, there is never only one way? We might be glad if we looked into it. The pursuit of our goals involves finding our own most manageable way and coming to terms with our chosen way. When things don’t work out as we’d hoped, and if course correction to the path we first (or second) imagined is impossible, acceptance can elude us and disappointment reign. Learning, then, to come back from that can take time. It takes the distance from which to look back and see things differently, and some openness to present mystery and future possibility. It takes patience and the desire to keep trying.

The writing life is not one kind of life, but many kinds. When misconceptions abound, the path tilts uphill, but the artistic, creative life is more than legitimate and worth while. To the art, to the artist, and to art-starved and art-filled societies alike, it is essential. So don’t starve while you’re trying not to starve, whether you’ve put living or writing first.

Writers and humans, please read on for the insight, resonance, beauty, and inspiration of Jan’s story. She did it, and does it, her way. 

“If Wishes Were Horses”* by Jan Priddy – at BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

You can learn more about Jan here and Jan’s work listed at her newer blog here.

photo of pathway surrounded by fir trees

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com


Philosofishal posts on a similar theme:


* Incidentally, Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite authors, but I cheer Jan’s response to his novel’s blame game.

Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Poems for the People

How can we serve poetry–raise its profile in society, give it love from more people, and spread its joy to more people? Poets and poetry lovers have grappled with this question in various ways over the years. From government and cultural leaders, to poet laureates and poets, to professors and teachers, to reviews and periodicals, to students and everyday citizens–everyone stands to benefit from the effort.

Poetry serves us in diverse and unique ways; so, too, can we reciprocate. How do we love it? Let us count the ways.

What is a poet laureate? What is the role of the laureate in the community served?

Originally, poet laureate was a title designated to an esteemed poet in the official service of the British monarch and royal household. Ben Jonson was the first poet laureate in 1616. The poet laureate would entertain the royals and nobility with their work and perform related services. The definition has evolved over centuries and oceans, but governments have tended to remain responsible–for designating a laureate, that is. The poetry is all on the poet. (source: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/poet-laureate?s=t)

Are U. S. poet laureates effective in their efforts? Judge for yourself. For example, among the Past Poet Laureate Projects on file at the U. S. Library of Congress that serve as gateways to and promoters of poetry, I’ve highlighted a few I found interesting.

Poetry 180. A project of former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins providing a poem a day for the school year in American high schools. See the page listing 180 poems.

Favorite Poem Project. Twenty years ago, 18,000 Americans shared their favorite poems with U. S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and the nation through video recitations, online resources, and this archive of favorite poems. http://www.favoritepoem.org/

La Casa de Colores. Juan Felipe Herrera, U. S. Poet Laureate 2015-2017, established two main projects for what he called “a house for all voices”: a massive crowdsourced poem, La Familia, and a monthly series, El Jardin, of the poet laureate’s experiences interacting with the Library of Congress’ bountiful archives.

Current and reappointed U. S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith brought the poetry conversation and readings to the rural South and continues her work by connecting poetry to small-town America.

But you don’t have to be the top poet in the country to further the cause of poetry. Note the Academy of American Poets’ suggestions for 30 ways to celebrate the poem.

Along with attending local live poetry performances like this and competitive events like this, one of my favorite ways to spread the love is through Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day, coming this Thursday, April 26th. It’s so simple. Share a poem you love in any way imaginable at school, in your community, or at work. Most obvious: Bring printed copies everywhere you go, and hand them out or anonymously deposit them in random or strategic locations where someone will find them and be inspired, dazzled, cheered up, soothed, or intrigued. Check out the Academy’s official 2018 Poem-in-Your-Pocket-Day guide to more ways to share, along with the text of 15 poems ready to distribute from contemporary American poets, 15 from Canadian poets, and 15 from the public domain. 

Another method I like comes from Tweetspeak Poetry: Take Your Poet to School Week. But again, it need not be school; take them anywhere! See their article “Bring in the Cupcakes!” to learn how this works and locate the full list available here, with four new poets for 2018. Although the designated week (first of April) has passed, I’ll soon bring out my favorite poets–so happy to see them included!–to keep me company and assist the Muse. From the link to the full collection of poets, which includes a front and back for each poet’s likeness, I’m starting with Judith Wright, Edgar Allan Poe (especially fun with the raven!), Wislawa Szymborska, Rumi, and Walt Whitman.

Scrap the official, eschew the formal, and free poetry in the spirit of equal access. L. L. Barkat describes in this Huffington Post article how to liberate verse from traditional constraints that keep us from accessing and enjoying it.

How will you celebrate poetry or poets? Serve it up.

More opportunities abound on this blog–my 10 top-viewed posts in poetry:

  1. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  2. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  3. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  4. Wild Verses, 5 of 10 / Writing 201: Poetry, Day 1 (Haiku, Water, Simile)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Call of the Wild Poetry
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  9. On Process: Verse Writing. Introduction and Part I: Motivation (involves writing an elegy for the late, great Leonard Nimoy/Spock)
  10. Writing 201: Poetry, Day 2 (Limerick, Journey, Alliteration)

Culling the herd, an original poem

Here’s to a more contemplative, considered, measured Earth Day 2018 (on, around, or far from 4/21), as for all intended days of remembrance, tradition, action, and activism.

Here’s to an antidote to do-something-ism, the arrogance of action for the sake of acting without intelligent, careful thought, patience for information, debunking myths, withholding judgment, uncovering assumptions, probing conventional understanding, and placing a check on emotionalism. Certainty is impossible, but near-certainty must be earned, not used as an excuse or a form of denial beforehand.

Here’s to Earth, to people, to animals, to reason, and to love. To a balanced appetite for details and the big picture. To doubt, to questioning, to human rights, and never killing to punish. To you, if you’re with me on these–if you, too, would cull the herd mentality, whether it claims to come from truth, patriotism, freedom, control, justice, safety, mercy, love, or God.

And here’s a poem of sorts.

Culling the herd    © 2018, Carrie Tangenberg

Sometimes to love animal
 means to love human-animal balance,
 if love is a balanced act of
 compassion, reason, acceptance,
 for human is animal, too.

I couldn’t pull the trigger
 in everyday conditions,
 but I don’t begrudge the hunter,
 farmer, game warden, parks
 ranger, zoo keeper, veterinarian,
 wild survivor, adventurer, 
 conservationist, naturalist,
 lost traveller who may have to,
 want to.

Who am I to stop everything?
 Save everything? Or anything?
 Start something? What exactly and why?
 What is wisdom, wise action here?

Cull the herd, naturally.
 Cull the herd naturally.

What does it mean?
 What is natural? What unnatural?
 Where is the line between?
 And which herd will it be?
 And how?

Curiosity, discovery,
 fascination, wonder, awe,
 anxiety, annoyance, frustration,
 disgust, confusion, amusement,
 anger, sadness, startlement,
 fatigue, and sometimes fear—

These are the feelings
 of living among wild prey
 when one owns a dog
 and a yard with grass
 you don’t want dug up
 by any but yourself,
 and a house built on
 pavement ant pandemic.

But free will is never free,
 never without consequence.
 What if making a difference 
 means doing more harm than good?
 Did you know? Do you? Always? 
 Respect the what-if, at least.

I don’t get squeamish
 reading about creature
 death, butchery, predation,
 and harvesting for food,
 watching wild death
 on TV or the Web, or watching 
 vet shows, trauma, surgeries, 
 sorrows.

I would, I do not like to see
 blood up close, so bright,
 so red, so shiny, fresh, raw.

All it took was a clip
 of the quick on my dog’s
 left back toenail to
 send me into panic
 where I’m usually calm.

It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
 General Chaos conquered.
 It was Easter 2018.

Bleeding eventually stops,
 and so do breeding, foraging,
 fleeing, hiding, sleeping,
 mating, hunting, scavenging,
 migration, habitats, and life.

We can’t stop everything,
 but everything stops, even
 rivers, seas, forests, islands,
 valleys, mountains, plains,
 planets, stars, solar systems.

Even senses, motion, heart,
 brain, growth, and breath.

Even love, even faith, even hope,
 even panic, idiocy, evil, insanity,
 and this listing of word lists.

If this post or poem resonated with you, you may also enjoy:

Five-Phrase Friday (34): Earth Day, Every Day

Call of the Wild Poetry

Five-Phrase Friday (1): The Poetry Politic

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons

It’s National Poetry Month. But beyond time, my recommendation stands.

Though it take all month, read one poem slowly, deeply, and again. Here’s a good candidate. Twice winner of the National Book Award, A. R. Ammons embraces–and shows us how to embrace–through close attention born of brave openness: freedom, motion, disorder, uncertainty, change, beauty, nature, life. And shorebirds. Gotta have shorebirds.

“Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons – An excerpt from the poem’s mid-section:

. . . 
risk is full: every living thing in
siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small
white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
          the shallows, darts to shore
                   to stab—what? I couldn’t
   see against the black mudflats—a frightened
   fiddler crab?

          the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
          fall: thousands of tree swallows
          gathering for flight . . .

- from "Corsons Inlet" by A. R. Ammons 
Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation website, 
quoted from The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition 
(W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1986)

See also Norton's list of other titles by A. R. Ammons.

IMG_1684_swallow

suspected tree swallow, rocks like dunes, The Glens Trail, Gorge Metro Park, Akron, Ohio, May 2017. Image © by C. L. Tangenberg


If you enjoyed this, you might also like:


Other posts in my series on famous nature poetry:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1): Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Thoughts on “How to be a Confident Writer . . .”

Writer, be free! Reblogging a post I pressed in 2015 from Live to Write – Write to Live, along with my commentary at the time. Happy Independence Day.

Philosofishal by Carrie Tangenberg

Weekend Edition – How to be a Confident Writer Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads.

“The trick is to metabolize pain as energy. Learn, when hit by loss, to ask the right question: ‘What next?’ instead of ‘Why me?”  — Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

I agree with most of the major points in the main post linked above on the confidence/vulnerability topic, including the embedded, sampled responses. In fact, I found myself at each turn nodding and thinking, “Just like Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way.” Many of these themes and issues arise frequently in the book. **

The one thing I disagree with, and side with Cameron about, is the notion that we are our own best judges. While it is true that during the creation process it is best to eschew judgement (especially of ourselves) altogether, once the…

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